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Feb. 17 — An expert's opinion that a Remington Arms Co. rifle was defective and could have caused an Alabama hunter's death was reliable and admissible at trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled.
The court reinstated the case, which stemmed from the discharge of a Remington Model 700 bolt action rifle. That model is at the center of a tentatively settled nationwide class action over its trigger mechanism.
The expert here, Charles Powell, properly accounted for possible alternative causes and used a reasonable inference, not speculation, when looking at the circumstances of the shooting, the Eleventh Circuit said.
The opinion is by Judge Eduardo C. Robreno of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, who sat by designation on the appellate panel.
The ruling reversed summary judgment for the gumaker.
Powell's expert testimony was also at issue in another appellate reversal in a Remington Model 700 case, O'Neal v. Remington Arms Co, 803 F.3d 974 (8th Cir. 2015) .
But, in that case, the question was whether his testimony was sufficient to allow the case to survive summary judgment, even though the rifle had been destroyed.
Plaintiffs in the class action, in O'Neal, and in this case allege that certain Model 700 rifles are susceptible to inadvertent discharge because of the design of the trigger mechanism, called the Walker trigger assembly.
Attempts to reach Remington and attorneys for the parties weren't successful Feb. 17.
Kenneth Seamon went hunting alone and was found dead in a tree stand with a gunshot wound to the chest, according to the appeals court. The rifle was found on the ground with a rope attached to it. The police concluded “that the rifle was at least five to ten feet away from Mr. Seamon when it fired,” the court said.
“The question, therefore, is a veritable whodunit: what caused the rifle to fire?” the Eleventh Circuit panel asked.
Remington argued that Seamon or someone else pulled the trigger.
Seamon's widow, Cynthia Seamon, argued the rifle discharged due to a defect when her husband was raising or lowering it.
Powell opined that dirt, corrosion or other particles can cause the part restraining the firing pin to drop out of position when it shouldn't, causing the rifle to fire. He said that if Seamon's rifle was jostled by the tree, the rope or the ground, it could have fired without a trigger pull.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama found the opinion speculative and therefore unreliable. The district court excluded Powell from testifying and granted summary judgment in favor of Remington.
But the Eleventh Circuit panel said the evidence in the case was inconsistent with the defense theory and consistent with Powell's theory. His inference was reasonable, the appeals court said.
The district court made other errors about Powell's testimony as well, amounting to an abuse of discretion, the court said.
The case returns to the district court for further proceedings.
Judges Julie E. Carnes and Adalberto José Jordán also served on the panel.
Monsees Mayer in Kansas City, Mo., and Beasley Allen Crow Methvin Portis & Miles PC in Mongomery, Ala., represented the plaintiff.
Lightfoot Franklin & White LLC in Birmingham, Ala., and Swanson Martin & Bell LLP in Chicago represented Remington.
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